By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Floating to the top of Wisp Mountain, through a sky so clear that each green leaf below seems polished, we spot a neoprened surfer type, booties dangling, on the chairlift ahead of us. He has the ripped torso, the tight wet suit and the tousled blond hair -- but dude, which way to the beach?
The gnarly waves break at the top of this Western Maryland ski resort, at the artificial whitewater complex called Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI). As the lift touches down, Bootie Boy walks toward a churning, boulder-rimmed circular channel surrounded by spectators. Some of them snap photos from a bridge while a red raft crashes down a six-foot waterfall below. The riders' screams reach us a half-second behind, as if on an amusement park soundtrack.
Promising the equivalent of scary Class III and IV rapids, the complex pulls paddlers to the peak of a 3,000-foot mountain (by car or that off-season chairlift) and cycles lake water through a 1,700-foot course. Rafters don't go down a river, or even down the mountainside. They loop around a circuit, then repeat, trying to avoid past mistakes.
Think of it as extreme sports for Xbox gamers.
The area around Deep Creek Lake would seem to have more than enough actual whitewater opportunities. Three pristine local rivers, the Cheat, the Savage and the Youghiogheny, offer world-class rafting. But state and federal economic development agencies were lured by a high-tech simulation of the real thing and kicked in to help finance the $24 million project. Adventure Sports shares 25 million gallons from Deep Creek with the Wisp ski resort. In warm weather, water diverted from the creek recirculates through the whitewater course, its turbulence controlled by adjustable pumps. In winter, it's used to make snow.
Some local river outfitters were skeptical about the project; one bluntly called the idea an "environmental abomination." Undeterred, ASCI opened in late June. (It also operates an artificial climbing and biking center four miles down the road, in Fork Run.)
Waves of would-be rafters followed. "We're seeing 200 people a day, six days a week," reports Matt Taylor, director of operations. "After Labor Day, we'll be open Thursday through Sunday. We're planning on staying open through Halloween -- we've got wet suits."
That's a good thing, as the center's rapids are just as unpredictable as a real river -- only on a strict schedule. "It's the only course in the world with adjustable features," says ASCI safety coordinator Walter Augustine. Other man-made rapids, such as the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, can't change the pitch of their drops, or the waves below.
The ASCI course can. It creeps like a lazy August stream in the mornings, when it floats kids as young as 7 in inflatable kayaks. Promptly at 2 p.m., it switches gears, churning 13 million gallons of water to simulate serious swells for the rafts.
My intrepid sister Carol and I arrive for our high-speed afternoon session after a night at the Wisp Resort below.
In the pro shop, the overhead HDTV shows helmeted kayakers in dizzying barrel rolls. The color-coordinated neoprene gear, cool shoes and glossy adventure sports magazines surrounding us suggest that with the proper investment, we, too, can look like the pros. (The center hosted the U.S. whitewater slalom championship Aug. 4). But the posted water temperature is a far-from-hypothermic 75 degrees, and we decide that we can skip the rental wet suits. Our bathing suits and sneakers will take on water equally well.
After a 10-minute introduction to our gear, guide Steve Baughman, 20, confirms our assumption. "Anyone who wants to stay dry, let me know and I'll let you off right now," he promises. Our random group of six is an all-girl band. Teens Sarah and Kelly from Baltimore, mom and daughter Sharon and Rachel from West Virginia, and Carol and I all claim previous rafting experience, if little upper-body strength. Taking our place behind three other rafts in a placid pond, we await the first rapid.
"All forward!" Steve roars. We dig in. With a collective high-pitched scream, we run the first drop, shooting immediately out of the foaming current. Trapped by an eddy against the rocks, the right side of the raft sags. As we begin to flip, he shouts, "High side! High side!"
Too late. We bounce into the water at seven different comic angles. As I churn toward the surface, I see red.
It's the bottom of the raft, and it's trapping me in 65 inches of water. I'm drowning in an artificial river, but the panic is real. One push and I'm free. Steve laughs heartily. "I swam you!" he crows to our soaked crew. He made us swim, all right, and the current "swims" us promptly downstream.
Our reentry to the raft is a uniformly graceless, beached-whale affair, and the rest of our first circuit is chaotic.
Our fellow rafters seem equally inept, and the narrow channel throws us into bumper-car collisions. We scrape a few rocks, nearly capsize a passing kayak, watch another raft flip its paddlers, and finally shoot back into the calm reservoir. Twenty minutes have elapsed. We take our first deep breath. That was intense.
Augustine says that rafts are launched at intervals so there are only five boats on the course at a time. But throw in the kayakers who can share the sessions, and our weekday run feels too close for comfort. With visitors lining either bank, the atmosphere is Six Flags, rather than Snake River.
We make five circuits in all, gaining control with each pass (though Steve "swims" us all again on Round 3, and we briefly lose Sharon in Round 5). At the end of our two-hour session, Steve crowds us toward the rear of the raft for a "tombstone," tipping the nose of the raft up as we shoot into the reservoir for a finale.
My shoulders feel the burn. My fingers have pruned up. My sneakers are soggy. I feel as tired as I would after a day on a real river -- without those pesky, unproductive stretches of scenic idleness.
Okay, I admit I appreciate one technological innovation: hot showers. Instead of ending the day with a long wet hike or truck ride back to a base, ASCI's spacious locker rooms provide immediate gratification. And the Pumphouse Cafe next door offers an ant-free environment with panini, ice cream and a stunning vista from its outdoor tables.
Finally, Carol and I get to lean back and admire the view. The Allegheny Highlands are like blue-green waves themselves, surging at 3,000 feet toward the horizon. They're actually rather splendid au naturel, without concrete culverts and crowds. This far above water level, there's nothing wrong with being high and dry.
Christine H. O'Toole last wrote for Travel about dining in Pittsburgh's Strip District.